More than Just a Number: Stories from Questies

Every Tuesday and Thursday during the academic year, Richelle Robinson '20 attends frisbee practice after her ballet class. She plays for the Warmothers, the women's frisbee team at Swarthmore College. Besides juggling frisbee, ballet, academic work, and her social activities, Robinson also works as a part-time legal assistant for Terry Batty, a lawyer in the town of Swarthmore.

Like many  Swarthmore students, Robinson enjoys keeping her schedule tightly packed. Her fast-paced life at Swarthmore is different from the more leisurely rhythm at home in Kansas City, MO. "I just like being busy all the time, having a purpose, and having all my friends really close," she said.

Robinson is one out of nearly 100 QuestBridge scholars attending Swarthmore.  QuestBridge is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving low-income and talented students. It offers the College Prep Scholars Program for high school juniors and the National College Match for high school seniors. QuestBridge also offers specific Quest for Excellence Awards to outstanding College Prep Scholars. Students in the College Prep Scholars Program gain access to different college admissions resources, while those selected for the National College Match receive full scholarships if they apply for and are accepted by one of QuestBridge's partner colleges. Currently, 35 higher education institutions are partners with QuestBridge, including Swarthmore.  All students involved in the Questbridge Scholar programs are affectionately termed "Questies".

"I stand with everything that QuestBridge stands for in helping first-generation and low-income students who might not have access to college, or know that they can actually get into these prestigious colleges. I think that's amazing," Alliyah Lusuegro '20, the president and liaison officer of Swarthmore's QuestBridge Scholars' Network (QSN), said. As liaison officer, she acts as the intermediary between the nationwide QuestBridge organization and QSN to organize activities for fellow scholars.

One of QSN's biggest events is National Quest Day, which is scheduled in mid-November and celebrated at all of QuestBridge's partner schools. "We team up with the Admissions Office and host a catered lunch for Admissions, all of our scholars, Career Services, Deans, and all of the faculty and staff who support us," Lusuegro said.

"One scholar at another school designed a T-shirt that we all get. We have lunch and get an opportunity to talk about QuestBridge, our relationships with different departments, and just catch up with one another," she added.

Last semester, QSN held a spa night for QuestBridge scholars to take a well-deserved break from their hectic schedules. Inside the colorful Intercultural Center, scholars lounged on soft couches and enormous beanbags while putting on facial masks and listening  to relaxing background  music.

Peter Chong '20, a scholar from Sunnyside, NY, remembered that the spa night was the first QSN activity that he attended, and where he felt comfortable in the presence of fellow QuestBridge scholars.  "I've only gone to one event so far because I'm kind of shy," he chuckled. "At the spa night, I got one of those face masks and it tingled a bit, but it was kind of nice. I had a relaxing time just sitting there, listening to music with the face mask on.”

Outside Swarthmore, QuestBridge creates a broader community for scholars from different colleges to interact with one another. While Robinson was applying to the University of Chicago before she came to Swarthmore, she befriended five other scholars who were applying there as well. They were all part of QuestBridge and working on their Common Application.

"We all journeyed through the college application process together," Robinson recalled. "We helped each other edit essays, and everyone ended up going to a great school."

Although Robinson and her friends from QuestBridge are studying at different colleges all across the US, they still try to meet up and stay involved in one another's lives. "My friend, Gia, goes to Brown [University]. My friend, Kim, flew to Brown from UChicago and I took a bus there. We all met up at Brown last year and it was super fun. I still talk to them a lot, and they've gone their own way doing super cool stuff at their schools."

With a myriad of social activities within QSN and beyond, QuestBridge scholars seem to have plenty of opportunities for meeting their peers and developing their own social life at college. Academically, however, college can be challenging for some scholars who received formal education in less advantageous school settings.

"The school that I was in was not considered advanced, like students from underserved backgrounds didn't get much access to technology, or the stuff that helped other schools learn. In some part, that has affected me at Swarthmore, because I feel it puts me in a position where I have to catch up to those people who did have better resources and education," Lusuegro, whose family lives in a low-income neighborhood in Chicago, IL, explained.

Likewise, Chong also felt that his high school was different from the academically intense environment at Swarthmore. Chong went to the Academy of American Studies, a public high school. "When I came to Swarthmore, I definitely noticed the disparity between myself and others in terms of how prepared I was. I didn't have all the rigorous preparation. I didn't go through the same type of education as everyone, so I did find that the amount of work and type of work I had to do was different. I was initially stressed out, because I saw that everyone around me had all these fantastic opportunities that they participated in," he said.

Despite the difficulties of adapting to college life, Chong is grateful to be at Swarthmore as his education is not a burden on his family's finances. "My dad didn't even want me to go to college because he felt it was unnecessary and would just be stealing money from us. This is why Swarthmore was such a good thing to happen to me, because of the financial aid. He couldn't say anything about me going because now he didn't have to worry," Chong said.

For Robinson, being at college is almost like a childhood dream come true. "I've been looking forward to going to college for a very long time, starting from sixth grade. I started looking at colleges and was really excited about it. I knew early on that I needed to find a scholarship for college, so I was intrigued by QuestBridge," she said.

Robinson wanted to fulfill her dream of attending college without placing additional financial burdens on herself and her mother. "I come from a single-parent household, and my mom is disabled so she doesn't have a job. We're living off disability benefits. I didn't have a lot of money growing up, especially after my parents divorced, and that took a lot of money from my mom's savings," she said. "I went to private school from kindergarten to twelfth grade, but all on scholarship, so I was very lucky to get a scholarship [at Swarthmore] to keep that up and not have to worry about paying for my education."

Even with perennial issues around access to higher education, QuestBridge seems to offer a light at the end of the tunnel for Questies and their families: relief from the financial burdens of college and a support network with others in similar situations. Perhaps one day, more students within Swarthmore and beyond will benefit from QuestBridge and attend the colleges of their dreams without the anxiety around hefty bills.